One of them was the onetime Oklahoma halfback and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels, scouting for the Orange Bowl. Vessels (impartially, of course) said an Oklahoma-Penn State game would be a lulu because Billy Sims, the eight-yards-a-carry Sooner halfback, "runs at tackles." Penn State's tackles are Matt Millen and Bruce Clark, the most fearsome twosome in college football. Furthermore, said Vessels, he didn't think Oklahoma "protected all that well" against the pass, and Penn State has Chuck Fusina, the quarterback everybody east of Stanford's Steve Dils says is the best passer in the nation. Fusina himself is a hot Heisman candidate.
Here's how to judge Fusina: he passed for 234 yards against the Terrapins, completing 15 of 29, one a 63-yard touchdown strike—and he had an off day.
Since a pivotal early victory over Ohio State, Fusina has had available more and more pass routes in the Penn State flight plan. Against Maryland, he was able to use a full complement, getting completions to his tight end, split end, two flankers and three running backs.
To beat him, Maryland needed a" fierce pass rush, as does anyone hoping to hamper a good passer. Ordinarily, the Terps get the rush, because they are tenacious and tough enough to manhandle opposing lines. But Paterno said beforehand he didn't believe Maryland could beat his offensive line. And if it couldn't, Fusina would have a big day.
Maryland couldn't. Fusina could have knitted a sweater while he waited for his receivers to get open. Curiously, all that time occasionally seemed to hurt more than help because the longer he waited for the best angles the more he seemed to overshoot receivers. And Fusina's frequent play changes at the line of scrimmage often went unheard in the din and caused a spate of Penn State penalties. Still, Fusina managed to check off successfully often enough that he was able to get more production out of his runners than Paterno had hoped.
The first Lion offensive play of the game was a screen to Fullback Matt Su-hey off a double fake and it got Penn State started on a drive that led to Matt Bahr's 16th field goal of the year, a 33-yarder. Late in the first quarter a 34-yard run off a trap play by Tailback Mike Guman was called at the line to set up a one-yard Fusina dive for a touchdown that made it 10-0. And in the second quarter a sensational leaping, left-handed catch by Flanker Bob Bassett, also on a check-off, set up Bahr's 44-yard field goal for a 13-3 halftime score.
But the clincher was an apt demonstration of why Paterno calls Fusina the best long passer he has had. Midway through the third quarter, Fusina hit Flanker Tom Donovan deep up the middle on a pattern in which Donovan was actually acting as a decoy. Donovan's job was to clear the middle deep, for the primary receivers. But in so doing, he got a step on the defensive end dropping back to cover, and when the Maryland cornerback didn't support, Fusina saw it and rifled the ball 30 yards upfield. The 63-yard touchdown play and Bahr's conversion made the score 20-3, and Maryland was doomed; it could have played a week without making up such a deficit against the Penn State defense.
How good is Penn State? Well, how good does it have to be? It is possible that the Nittany Lions have reached that sublime state in a superior team's life when its ability to deliver is consistent with its needs.
"There comes a time," says Paterno, "when a team realizes how good it is, not only knowing it can win but doing the things it takes when it has to." He says he felt this happening in the first quarter against Ohio State, at least defensively. Fusina believes the offense caught up to the defense in the first half against Kentucky, when the Lions were methodically devastating en route to a 30-0 victory. He says that since then they had treaded water, winning over lesser foes, but that the beat was still there. Two or three of the younger players, disturbed by wins that were merely wins, not blowouts, came to Paterno before the Maryland game, wanting to have a team meeting. "I told them, 'What for? We'll be all right. We're going good. You have that kind of meeting when you're not going good.' "
Of course, Penn State could still lose one or both of those last two games. Stranger things have happened. Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne noted two days before the game that the Lions had a recent history of falling on their ranked noses after beating his Terps, which they have now done 12 straight times under Paterno. After the last three Maryland games, Penn State lost the next week.